Listen and learn: Michael Denny on five years of planning PlayStation 4

MIchaelDenny

Sony learned some difficult lessons from the launch of PlayStation 3, and it is determined not to make those mistakes again. With Microsoft’s silence becoming ever more conspicuous, its greatest videogame rival is slowly, but surely, explaining the philosophy behind PlayStation 4. Many were not content with a controller, a few games and a vision at PlayStation Meeting on February 20th; when we speak to Sony Worldwide Studios’ vice president Michael Denny six weeks later, he isn’t revealing too much more about its price, look or launchdate.

He can, however, elaborate on the new platform’s origins – how Sony’s difficult PS3 launch influenced its approach to PS4 and what happened in the five years of planning that led up to February 20th 2013. He also gives us his thoughts on why Sony didn’t reveal the console itself, and how PS4 will perform in an ever more platform agnostic game industry.

Now there’s a little space between now and the reveal event, what are your personal impressions of how it went?

I guess the starting point is that it’s been quite a journey to get to that announce [event]. It’s been, for all of us involved at looking at what PlayStation 4 should be, a five-year journey to get to that point. And what the announce in New York was all about was a chance for us to share our vision with everybody of what PlayStation 4 should be. And in essence I hope it came across that that vision is fairly simple, that we are absolutely looking at making a next-gen console for gamers and made by gamers.

When did your work on PlayStation 4 begin? Can you take us back as close to its beginnings as you can?

You’re really going to test my recollection and memory on this… as Mark Cerny pointed out, when you go back five years we were still really just getting PlayStation 3 off and running after obviously some early challenges in the birth of PlayStation 3. At that point, developers were really getting their teeth into it and really starting to produce some great software, but already we could see the challenges that PlayStation 3 was presenting.

Some of our creators and some of our development teams, while the end results were fantastic, the end results to get there has been well-regaled by all, it took an awful lot of effort and took an awful lot of concentration away from the pure creative process. So even at that point we were mindful that in starting the conversation with all the magnificent game creators we work with, we absolutely wanted to talk with them about a system that could really unleash their creativity and the technical basis for the platform – as Mark talked [about] – it was an informed system architecture that could really lend itself to help all our creators. So from that early point on, those conversations – and again at that point in time it wasn’t overt conversations as they were – we were just talking to developers about the future.

We were in the heartland of PlayStation 3 so we couldn’t really turn around and say ‘hey, we’re planning PlayStation 4 now’. We just wanted to get early feedback on the views of current-gen consoles and current-gen console development and some thoughts for the future. So that’s where we were five years ago, it was more implied talks and just listening and learning from what people were going through.

Could you tell us about some of those key factors that came out of some of those post-mortems, and how that’s informing your launch of the new console?

I guess in high-level terms it’s in terms of having a system that was perhaps less bespoke so that we could really leverage all the experience and talent of game creation and technology of studios going forward. So that really lent itself to some of the points in the announcement, particularly Mark’s section, that we made. This time we really have gone for a PC architecture but super-charged for games. So we can leverage the experience of all those teams going forward and harness what I think is the real meat, which is the creativity.

The price of the PS3 was something that obviously got a lot of attention during those early days. How much did those experiences with price hampering that initial momentum influence decisions on the technical specs of the new hardware?

I guess the first thing to say is that we listen and learn and take the judgement from every console launch we ever have and we have to be informed by what the strengths of our PlayStation 3 system have been, but also the challenges of that. We want a system that can reach as broad a gaming audience as possible but whilst being a system that’s deep, connected, rich and immersive and is going to give a very focused and differentiated experience than anything else that’s out there.

What lessons have you learned from the PS3 price? Will PS4 launch with a more competitive price point?

There’s plenty of time, we’ve got lots of information yet to give out on PlayStation 4. The initial announcement phase that we’re in now is just to explain the vision to everybody. Part of that vision is we have created a console absolutely focused on gamers – and we want that to be gamers in the broadest sense as well. I think to some extent I can ask you to draw your own conclusions.

In New York Andrew House remarked that the stakes were high. How essential PlayStation 4 is for Sony as a company?

I think the starting point is you go back to when we launched PlayStation 3 and I think it’s fair to say that the landscape in terms of gaming has totally changed since those days. It’s so much more competitive but it’s so much more proliferated in terms of the amount of people who are gaming and the amount of devices they are gaming on. And in a way we have to see that as an opportunity. I think as we’ve said we’re going to be very focused on gamers and gaming and offer an experience that is differentiated, that is high-end, but in doing that we have to embrace where gaming’s gone. And that’s why we have to embrace lots of ideas such as integration, that we are integrating into many other areas of gamer’s lives, casual gamers and gaming-on-the-go as well.

I’m guessing you anticipated fans’ frustrations in not getting a glimpse of the console itself. I’m sure there was a clear strategic decision to withhold it, can you talk about what that was?

Yeah absolutely that was the decision. After five years in the planning phase the most important starting point for us was to explain our vision for what next-gen gaming is and what PlayStation 4 should be. So it’s more important for us at that announce event – which is the first of what I’m sure you’ll understand will be a number of events this year explaining what PlayStation 4 is – to explain what’s inside the box rather than reveal the box itself. And don’t get me wrong, we all get excited, we all love the look of these devices and it’s very important, but yeah – that is for another day.

Has the form factor been set yet?

I’m not sure it’s instructive for me to start trying to describe or talk about what I’ve seen or haven’t seen in terms of the actual look of the box. But yeah, you know it’s going to be another fantastic design and we can’t wait to reveal it.

So the controller is a pant-leg being rolled up to tease?

[laughs] Yeah. I think it’s more relevant to what we were just talking about there, that the controller is a very important aspect of the physical design that influences the gameplay. So that’s why it’s more important for us to talk about the controller at that event because of course we wanted to talk about how we’d improved the DualShock 3 with tighter sticks, better triggers, cut-down latency and new features, with the touchpad, lightbar etcetera.

Can you talk about your experience in the prototyping and development of the controller and how it came to exist in its current form?

Yeah I would say it was as important an issue and talking-point with all the creators as anything else – equal to the system architecture. As we all know the input device is a crucial part of any console nowadays. And certainly over the last generation the variations we’ve had on controllers and user interfaces have really changed the experiences that gamers can have. So it was an essential talking point, and you know you can imagine depending on which creators and studios you’re talking to – what sort of genres of games they’re making – they all had very strong and heartfelt input into this. It was for ourselves and particularly our colleagues in Japan to filter that input and look at prototypes as well. We got prototyping early and I think one issue with the controller is that whilst you see prototypes using certain parts or have certain ideas for controllers, we know things can take time and you don’t want to jump to too many conclusions. So after many discussions we opted to keep in quite a few features that we felt would be strong for now and for the future.

Was the decision to call it PlayStation 4 a foregone debate or a topic of discussion leading up to the reveal?

PlayStation was always going to be part of the title. I think PlayStation is synonymous with home video gaming and we’ve got a proud and rich history and a large fanbase and strong brand. That means a lot to everybody. Clearly the next one along, it makes complete sense just to continue and go from strength to strength.

So there were no other names on the table?

I think we’re getting into an area of internal discussions that probably wouldn’t be that useful to go into too much depth and share with you. All I can say is that PlayStation 4 is the clear winner in all our eyes.

What can you tell us about the overall scope of the project at Sony?

Without trying to give actual numbers, it did really, this time perhaps more than any other time, cut across all divisions of the company early on in terms of thinking about what this console should be. That was certainly on the studio side very exciting and I was very privileged to be included in it. Certainly from those early consultations and just talking about ideas there’s been a gradual shift – and in the last two years – a very keen focus for everybody in Worldwide Studios of what we’re concentrating on now for the future.

There’s alot of discussion around the relevance of the console in an industry that’s increasingly become hardware agnostic. How do you justify the existence and expensive development costs of a new game console in an industry that keeps threatening to leave them behind?

I guess ultimately the consumers will answer that question, but from our point of view it’s about offering a new and differentiated experience. Gamers and consumers like new things and I think the console experience is still massively strong out there. Absolutely, gaming has proliferated across a number of devices and we need to embrace that. But none of those other devices are offering the kind of experience you can get on a home console and certainly one that we believe we’re going to offer with PlayStation 4.

What about the timing of this reveal…how did you decide that now was the moment to let the gaming audience know that PS4 is coming?

We feel that the time is right. The gaming community is ready for a new, deeper, richer, more connected experience, so with that in mind you can understand we were chomping at the bit. We chose to do a staged announcement, as it were, in terms of a number of different occasions. So we started relatively early by talking about the vision, still leaving lots more to tell over the rest of the year up until launch.

How important was it to beat Microsoft to punch on this reveal?

As I say, we know our launch date, and we think it’s very important that gamers receive that new console experience. With that in mind, we just thought it was the right time to set the vision and set the agenda in New York.